Wellness Department looks to address student concerns with sex ed

But that’s no easy feat when the topic of sex in schools has become a lighting rod

Wellness Department feels pressure from all sides to modify sex ed.

Connor Boyle

Wellness Department feels pressure from all sides to modify sex ed.

Connor Boyle, Staff Writer

High schoolers don’t like sex ed – and, among LFHS students, there seems to be three major concerns: an abstinence-heavy curriculum, no defined definition of consent, and minimal discussion of LGBTQ+ sex.

A common part of sex ed here, and across the country, is a focus on abstinence – but that isn’t readily accepted as a good thing. There is evidence that abstinence education doesn’t work.

“We’re taught that abstinence is the answer,” said junior Angela Karr “and that it’s the end all be all, when most of us know that is not the end all be all, and most of us know that is not going to be our choice.”

Roughly 55% of minors, according to the CDC, have had sexual intercourse. And the problem doesn’t even seem to be that abstinence is not followed – it’s what the curriculum leaves out.

“I don’t think that it should be taught as the only way that you should live your life,” said junior Fox Duelli. “It should be presented as an option, but so should using contraceptives.”

Junior Emily Updike said it’s “important to know that you have options and that you can be safe and still be sexually active. If people knew that there were options, and knew where to get them, everything would just be safer.”

Freshman Nora Sharman, who recently completed her sex ed unit, remembers the abstinence-above-all mindset.

“They had us fill out a note sheet with the probability you were going to get pregnant or get an STD with different contraceptives,” she said. It left her feeling like they almost discouraging the use of contraceptives.

There are certain people that don’t want it to change, and there are other people that want it to change faster, or more. That’s the hard part of being a teacher.”

— Wellness Department Director Michael Mizwicki.

An abstinence-focused curriculum appears to leave groups of people out as well.

“The whole issue with the abstinence thing is that it is so demeaning to survivors of sexual violence or sexual assault,” said Karr. “I don’t find it fair.”

According to the CDC, nearly 11% of high school students have reported sexual violence, “so there is no way that there are no kids sitting in the classroom who haven’t been affected,” said Karr.

“We read these passages in health class about all these people that saved themselves. How does a girl or boy feel reading this, who was sexually attacked and got that ripped out of their hands, and got that ripped out of their bodies, feel? It’s demeaning and it’s not fair.”

“It’s a very political thing now”

Changing the curriculum to make everyone happy is not easy, said Wellness Department Director Michael Mizwicki.

“It’s one of those subjects where it’s really hard to cover everything in the detail that we want,” he said.

There is also a rigid curriculum required for Wellness for Life, the class in which sex ed is taught. “So as much as we’d like to talk about everything in very particular detail, at some point, you have to get all this in to comply with the national standards, the state standards, as well as the other individualized laws,” said Mizwicki.

“ It would be great if you could walk in the class, and say, ‘Hey, what does everyone want to know?’ But with such a tight timeline, it’s really hard to do that in this class.”

Another issue with sex ed is that “it’s a very political thing now,” said Mizwicki. Politicians, educators, and families nationwide are discussing – and litigating – about what sex ed should look like in schools.

“In the span of the same day, I received phone calls from parents saying we should teach a certain topic more, and on that same day, I received calls from parents saying that we should not teach the same topic at all,” Mizwicki said.

While some people want more change, “the standards have come a long way” in the last two decades, said Mizwicki.

“Twenty years ago, it was all abstinence-based. It was required by law that you couldn’t really promote the other things, and that’s not where we’re at now. They didn’t even have us drinking water during PE during high school. They were worried about you getting cramps, and that was the direct opposite of what it should be.”

The topic of consent

Another issue students see in the Sex Ed program is a minimal focus on defining consent.

“We talked about consent,” said Sharman, “but it was just basically, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable, say no.’”

Students need a better understanding of consent, Updike said.

“I think people just weren’t taught that if someone is intoxicated, they can’t give consent,” said Updike. “It’s producing a bunch of people who could become unknowing sexual offenders, which is so sad for both parties. Ignorance isn’t bliss.”

Colleges are grappling with how to best teach students the definition of consent that they may not have learned in high school.

“It’s producing a bunch of people who could become unknowing sexual offenders.””

— Junior Emily Updike

Despite the challenges, changes are coming to the LFHS curriculum, Mizwicki said.

“We’re going to do some curriculum work in the summer,” said Mizwicki. “Our goal for this summer is to have all the W4L teachers work on a unit where there is no deviation between one class and the other. We’ll try to be balanced, unbiased, and kind of make sure that we’re really in line with the standards.”

But even with that, there are problems.

“So much is changing,” said Mizwicki, “and as everything changes, there are certain people that don’t want it to change, and there are other people that want it to change faster, or more. That’s the hard part of being a teacher. You have 24 students, and all 24 need something different.

Sex and LGBTQ+

Perhaps the most controversial and topical qualm regarding sex ed is that of LGBTQ+ (or “queer”, a term for non-cisgender or heterosexual individuals) sex education.

“They didn’t talk about any LGBTQ sex, except that it can happen,” said Sharman. “There was no talking about what safe sex is, or how you protect yourself from STDs when there’s not a chance of getting pregnant. We didn’t talk about the higher depression and suicide rates, which I think is really important.”

Karr said “queer people deserve to be educated too.”

“You cannot exclude a part of the population because they are a minority,” said Karr. “It’s discrimination as far as I’m concerned.”

Things have changed for the better, Mizwicki said, even if they have not changed as much as some people want.

“Issues with things like your gender identity weren’t discussed 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, even five years ago,” said Mizwicki. “So as things change publicly, I think they start to put those things into the standards, and then we put them in class.”

However, change takes time, especially on such a broad scale.

In the meantime, “One of the things we can do in that class is really provide fact-based additional resources,” said Mizwicki. “Whether that’s through the CDC, the Mayo clinic, or other scientifically based websites – providing those types of links and saying, ‘Hey, if you want greater detail, then you can go to these sites.’”

Karr is not sure that is enough.

“I think at the bare minimum, there could be a link to a website for queer kids,” said Karr. “Giving kids the option to learn about queer sex, and what they can do to be safe:That’s really all it takes.”

Duelli says that sex education is just part of the bigger issue.

As things change publicly, I think they start to put those things into the standards, and then we put them in class.”

— Wellness Department Director Michael Mizwicki.

“What’s been happening with these book bannings,” said Duelli, “it seems like the school itself is taking a step backwards in terms of sex and sexual health. Even now, it’s important for people to have a freedom of information and knowledge of options.”

But even at the local level, disregarding curriculum or national controversy, “Lake Forest is not the safest place for queer people,” said Karr, “and I think most people know that.  Even with the Day of Silence, I saw many kids in my classes mocking it, along with adults in the community protesting it. This is a serious issue, and queer kids don’t feel safe here. They don’t feel heard.”

“It’s just not fair for so many different students,” said Karr. “It needs to change.”